It is said the wise man built his house upon a rock, but try telling that to the person that has to install a sprinkler system in that same type of soil. This past summer my wife and I (read, just me) had to dig the trenches to install our sprinkler system. By the end of it, we had at least 2 truckloads of rocks sitting on our yard along with a ton of green waste. Having spent a large sum of money renting a trencher and acquiring the necessary sprinkler components, I was glad that I could haul the rocks off to the dump at my own leisure (if one could call hauling rocks in 100 degree weather “leisure”).
But imagine if the government made it illegal to haul off my own junk. If the government was to deem my home a construction site, it would require that I only use the companies that it specified to haul off my waste. Furthermore, imagine that the unions of these companies, having worked to guarantee this monopolistic arraignment, went on strike.
Such was the case this summer in Seattle when Waste Management and Teamsters Local 117 (composed of recycling workers) came to an impasse regarding their work agreement. The strike of Local 117 was indeed an inconvenience, but when Teamsters Local 174 (which represents the garbage workers) joined their union brethren in the strike the situation deteriorated as garbage was left uncollected for some time.
The strike highlighted the problem with an ordinance passed 10 years previously by Seattle. The ordinance deemed construction, demolition, and land clearing waste as “city waste” which meant that only two companies, Waste Management and Rabanco, would be authorized to remove them. Even with the two companies’ unions on strike, small waste removal entrepreneurs would still be banned from collecting the waste they would be willing to haul off at a much lower price.
The issue in Seattle is not an isolated incident. Labor laws have played a significant role in shaping America. While there are many opinions regarding labor laws, Latter-day Saints can look to the principles of the gospel to better understand how they can influence labor policy for the better.
In Isaiah the question is posed, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?” (Isaiah 33:14). In his General Conference address in 1973, Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains that Isaiah is asking who is considered worthy to have a place in the Celestial Kingdom. With that in mind Isaiah answers his own question in verse 15:
He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil (Isaiah 33:15).
Elder McConkie further explains what this means, as I will highlight how his explanation can apply to labor policy.
Isaiah states that someone who qualifies for celestial glory is one who “despiseth the gain of oppressions”. According to Isaiah’s statement, Elder McConkie tells us that if we desire to dwell with our Heavenly Father “we must act with equity and justice toward our fellowmen. It is the Lord himself who said that he, at the day of his coming, will be a swift witness against those that oppress the hireling in his wages.”
Notice Elder McConkie didn’t specifically cite who the oppressor was. It is safe to say that the condemnation was meant for all persons who seek to keep the laborer from receiving what is justly due to them. In the case of the waste removal problem in Seattle, the money earned by the union workers, Waste Management, and Rabanco is the “gains of oppression” since they used government force to keep other individuals from being able to earn money through waste removal.
Unions in particular are notorious for using force to get gain, but organized labor or unions as a principle are not necessarily evil. Such organizations can certainly employ peaceful methods that are devoid of coercion in order to increase their wages or gain other benefits. However, a lover of liberty is justified in decrying the current injustice and unfair practices of union members who use force and aggression against non-union workers, businesses, and business owners to achieve their ends.
- Fixing wages regardless of economic conditions.
- Intimidating non-union employees from working in a given profession or company
- Sabotaging a business or employees’ work
- The practice of “closed shops”, which is when a union can compel prospective employees to join the union if they wish to even hope to work in a given company. (2303 )
Presently, it’s hard to belong to a union and not have the sort of aforementioned behavior exist. Imagine the awkward situation of joining the Teamsters Local 174 in Seattle because of a love for waste removal only to find out that, later on, the union is using the government to remove competition.
Pushing to repeal laws like the Norris LaGuardia Act of 1932, the Sherman AntiTrust Act, and the Wagner Act of 1935 would at least hold union members accountable for their actions. Many provisions in these laws allow unions the use force with government backing to get their way with their employers.
LDS members can have a positive influence in a union. Joseph F. Smith provides great counsel on how to be both a faithful Latter-day Saint and also belong to a union:
- Push to have the same spirit and Brotherhood in the union like you have in the Gospel of Christ
- Place your religious priorities ahead of your union priorities.
- Protect the inalienable right of all your fellow man. This includes the respect for the property of another.
- Don’t prop up prejudices to inflame individuals against others. (2320)
In other words, if a Latter-day Saint was a member of Local 174 or Local 117 in Seattle, that individual could work hard to help others earn a living by removing government-imposed barriers to competition. When tempers flare up in the union regarding non-union businesses, the LDS union member could stand up for the non-union businesses and even go out of their way to be friends with the competition.
President Smith’s instruction reflects statements made previously by President David O. McKay who said,
Latter-day Saints should avoid affiliation with any committee, any group, any union that would, through coercion of force, deprive a person of the free exercise of his or her freedom of choice. It is understood, of course, that any person is free to join a union, when to do so favors his best interests; but no one should be compelled to join, or be deprived of any right as a citizen, including the right to honest labor, if he chooses not to become a member of a union or especially organized group.
If a union persists in using force, it may be better for Latter-day Saints to absolve themselves of associating with the union rather than continue in support of it. While there may exist a desire to avoid any form of union membership, LDS members who aren’t in a union can do a great deal to demonstrate Christ-like love by befriending rather than alienating those who belong to unions.
As representatives for the Savior, Latter-day Saints can help both bridge the often wide divide between unions and non-union workers. If the end goal is to have peaceful, voluntary exchange, then we must advocate for those methods that ensure it. If violence and coercion are not the Lord’s way of doing things, those who use violence to get what they want must answer the question posed by the Lord, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”(Mark 8:36)
 Clark, J. R. (1975). Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Volume VI 1935-1951. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc.
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